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Famalaro Gets Death Sentence in Huber Murder

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Joseph Famalaro, one of Orange County’s most notorious murderers, was sentenced to death Friday by a Superior Court judge who spoke of the terror that his victim, Denise Huber, must have felt during the final moments of her life.

“Just imagine what was going through her mind,” Judge John J. Ryan said, as he described how the 23-year-old woman was abducted from the shoulder of the Corona del Mar Freeway, where her car had broken down late at night, then taken to a Laguna Hills warehouse where she was sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death.

Famalaro, 40, will be transferred from Orange County Jail to San Quentin State Prison within 10 days. He showed no emotion as the judge imposed the sentence, and did not look at Huber’s family members when they spoke in court.

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“I cannot adequately describe the pain, agony and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that I experienced,” the victim’s mother, Ione Huber, told the judge. "[It] turned into days, then turned into months, then turned into years.”

“I miss her more than words can describe. My heart aches,” she added.

The judge noted the “extraordinary” impact the crime had on the young woman’s parents, who spearheaded a nationwide search for their daughter after she disappeared on her way home from a rock concert on June 3, 1991. The rear tire of her car blew out on the freeway less than three miles from her parents’ Newport Beach home.

Huber was missing for three years before her nude, handcuffed and bludgeoned body was discovered in July 1994, preserved in a home freezer that Famalaro kept running in an overdue rental truck parked outside his Arizona home.

“Without argument, [the parents] made an extraordinary effort to locate their daughter,” Ryan said. “Both parents had difficulty with their work, eating and sleeping. But they always had hope. They went through years of not knowing. These were years of not knowing and hope.”

Ione Huber came to court with her 27-year-old son, Jeff. Dennis Huber, the victim’s father, who attended each day of Famalaro’s six-week trial with his wife, was unable to make the trip from their home in North Dakota, where the couple moved three years ago to try to escape painful reminders of their daughter’s disappearance.

On Friday, Ione Huber said she and her husband are planning to move back to Orange County soon. They want to live nearer their son and grandchild, as well as many friends.

Jeff Huber told the judge that he has seen his parents “age 20 years” since his sister’s disappearance and murder. “It’s really taken a toll on them,” he said.

In June, a jury of nine women and three men recommended that Famalaro be sentenced to death. They had already convicted the former painting contractor of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sodomy. Two jurors and one alternate juror were in the courtroom for the formal sentencing.

“I felt like I wanted to maintain some kind of contact, and I wanted to see the judge agree with our verdict,” said juror David Reyno. “I didn’t realize how much this all affected me until the case was over. Every time I drive on the [Corona del Mar] freeway, I think about what happened to her that night and about what she went through.”

Ryan denied a motion by Famalaro’s attorneys seeking a new trial. The judge said he believed the jury was correct in convicting him of first-degree murder, as well as the so-called “special circumstances” of sodomy and kidnapping which made him eligible for the death penalty.

“The evidence as to Mr. Famalaro’s guilt was just overwhelming,” Ryan said.

The judge discussed the special circumstance allegations in detail. He said Famalaro must have had “forcible sex in mind” when he took Huber to the Laguna Hills warehouse where he was living at the time of the murder.

It was inside the warehouse that Huber, a recent graduate of UC Irvine, was killed by at least 31 blows to the head with a roofer’s nail puller.

The judge said the victim must have fought Famalaro, or he would not have felt the need to restrain her.

“The evidence proved that this lady did not willingly get into a stranger’s car when she was so close to help,’ he said. “Even if she had gotten into the car voluntarily, she would not have accompanied Mr. Famalaro to the warehouse. Would not. She gave Mr. Famalaro a hard time and that is what the evidence proves.”

Famalaro was quickly convicted last May of the crimes, despite fervent attempts by his attorneys to disprove the special circumstance allegations, while ultimately conceding that he did commit the killing.

The penalty phase of the trial focused on the aggravating factors of Huber’s death and her family’s grief versus the mitigating factors of Famalaro’s troubled childhood at the hands of a domineering mother and his resulting mental and emotional problems.

Ryan said he did believe that Famalaro suffered during his upbringing, which he said left some “mental and emotional scars.”

“Mrs. Famalaro’s control over her children was not normal or healthy,” the judge said.

The trial’s penalty phase focused almost as much on the bizarre behavior of 71-year-old Anne Famalaro as the defendant himself. Both of his siblings testified about their life as children, and the judge said Friday, “Neither brother [Famalaro and his older brother, Warren, a convicted child molester] was able to channel their sexual drives within what the law required.”

But the judge also noted the close relationship Famalaro had with his maternal grandmother and older sister and her children and others.

Deputy Public Defender Leonard Gumlia said he believes Famalaro has a chance for a new trial on appeal, because the notoriety of the crime had tainted the entire jury pool in Orange County, and because of the nature of the testimony about the crime’s impact on the family.

Ryan rejected both arguments Friday when refusing to grant a new trial.

Gumlia and co-defense attorney Denise Gragg said Ryan’s sentence came as no surprise, but they remain deeply disappointed that their client faces execution.

“Basically, we had 12 people say, ‘We’re going to kill you because you did something wrong,’ ” Gumlia said.

After the sentence was imposed, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Evans reflected on a case he was assigned to when Famalaro was arrested in July 1994.

Evans said that while it is “never pleasant” to watch someone sentenced to death, he believes “this is the only just conclusion.”

Gumlia and Gragg said they strongly urged their client not to make any statements in court Friday, saying they could be used against him during the appeals process that automatically follows a death sentence.

But Ione Huber said it would have meant a lot.

“I’d like to hear him say ‘I’m sorry for all the pain I caused you,’ ” she said. “He hasn’t said that. He won’t even look me in the eye when I’m talking to him. Does he have any feelings at all?”


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